Toner for a Poplar Cabinet

A customer changes her mind, and a cabinetmaker needs to apply a stain finish instead of paint to a poplar cabinet. Pros chime in with detailed recommendations and explanations for a very challenging toner application. May 17, 2005

My client changed her mind after I built a poplar floor to ceiling cabinet. It was originally supposed to be a stain/paint rub through antique style cabinet. Now she has decided she wants it stained. I've tried some stains on some poplar samples and they look terrible. I've tried a 7:1 shellac wash and not much difference. The problem is the white wood versus the green wood. The green stains fine while the white sucks up the stain like no tomorrow. I've given up on stain and want to try a toning lacquer. A few questions. I am using ML Campbell's Magnamax (maybe Krystal instead) and a dye concentrate to mix in with the lacquer. The first couple of tries seemed to be kind of thick. I was using the lacquer with no thinner and adding 1/4 oz of dye concentrate to every 5 oz of lacquer. Can I thin the lacquer by 30%, maybe 50%, and make the toner still using the same proportions (1/4 oz of dye concentrate to every 5 oz of thinned lacquer)? That way I can use a few more coats and get a darker shade without going over the 4 mil dry limit. Any other comments about using a toning lacquer?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor B:
You do have a problem. First of all, what stain does she want? You have to have it as dark as the darkest portion of the poplar. I've seen them black to dark green. You could make a toner to color the lighter areas adjacent to the darker ones. But I would talk to her and tell her what she has done. She wanted a paint, stain and rub though, so you used a less expensive grade of wood to give her the best price. Now she has changed her mind, requiring you to be Merlin the Magician. You can't make poplar look like maple or cherry or any other even grain wood because of the type of grain it has. I would explain that first. Then say you can stain it, but the dark portions will stand out. I've stained poplar with a green wiping stain (Woodsong2). Looked beautiful, if you wanted to emphasize the green and black and brown grains that were already there. Just tell her you and her have a problem because she changed her mind after the fact.

From the original questioner:
She wants a medium to dark brown color with a hint of red. Stain is out of the question as the white and green portions of the wood absorb the stain radically differently. That is why I want to use a toner for color. I had the red orange dye that I am using for my undercoat color for the rest of the kitchen and it worked very well as a shading toning lacquer, no reaction from the white or green areas. It is just like a factory finish where they don't use a stain and get a very even color between different shades of wood. I was just hoping for some hints from you guys (or gals) that have dealt with toned lacquers as opposed to staining and clear coating.

From contributor Y:
You've got a headache on your hands. Make sure you lay down a good coat of vinyl sealer before spraying the toned lacquer. Otherwise, it will soak in at different rates and be blotchy. I would opt to get my color in 2-3 light coats as opposed to getting the color in a single coat. You're gonna have to charge a lot more for finishing than she's probably expecting because of the headache involved!

From the original questioner:
The two or three light coats versus one dark coat is what I want to do. I've sprayed some test trials and I have no reaction from the wood; both the white and green wood act the same. It seems to be just like putting on a clear coat, only it has color in it. Now I need some help on the thinning of the toner. When I do thin it, I was wondering how much I should thin. Should I go 10, 20, 50%? I don't really have a clue and I'd like to not spend too much time fooling around with test trials if one of you guys has already done this sort of thing. My main question is how much do I thin and should I save some dry mil thickness for a non-colored clear topcoat to protect everything?

From contributor Y:
I can't really help you there. I use industrial colorants and just mix a little of this and a little of that until I get what I'm looking for. I've never used the dyes as colorants for toning. Yes, I always put one coat of pure clear over the top of everything. You'll just have to keep playing with everything until you get an acceptable color.

From contributor D:
Shading a toned lacquer is harder than it appears. I don't recommend it for the casual finisher. There is a process I use when teaching my men how to shade that allow me the ability to wash color off if necessary (when they are learning, it's necessary a lot!). I have used this finish numerous times with great success.

1. Seal the pieces with 3 coats of amber shellac. Thin shellac 3:1 with denatured alcohol. 3 parts thinner to 1 part shellac.
2. Scuff sand shellac with 3M maroon Scotch Brite pads.
3. Apply stain and wipe off. The stain should just lightly color the wood.
4. Seal with any lacquer/vinyl sealer you choose.
5. Scuff sand as before.
6. Load gun with stain thinned appropriately. Adjust fluid and air to light mist and start shading. The nice thing about this technique is that you can shade only the areas that require color instead of shading everything evenly.
7. Seal as before.
8. Sand and finish.

The beauty of this is, if the results are unsatisfactory and you need to start over, you can wipe the oil-based stain off without damaging the first color and sealer applications and adjust color or tone.

From contributor B:
Well, you've got to do samples or experiment with what you want to do. Get some of the scrap wood. Seal it with sanding sealer as contributor Y said, get a red ngr, brown ngr, reduce each with lacquer thinner. Maybe 1:4 or 5parts L.T., maybe 6. Spray that on the green or brown portions of the wood to try killing the green (use red for that). On the other, try the brown to get the brown you want. You have to test out different colors on the wood to get what you want. Spray where you just get it wet. Don't let it puddle up. Now you could add some binder (sanding sealer) to that mixture, but just enough so the color stays there. It's testing and experimenting to see what is needed. Perfect Brown and Brown Mah. or Perfect Brown and Red Mah. - hard to say which is needed because of the color in wood.

From contributor T:
Your thinning ratio is going to be pretty much up to what you consider reasonable, and at the same time getting the color you want. How is that for vague? You may also try to add less color, as all doesn't have to rely on the amount of thinning you have in your finish, but having the confidence of knowing the color will be there in so many coats and within your schedule or mil concerns. (It may not take much color to get you there as you think). I don't mind bragging when I say I have a deadly eye for color matching. I rarely miss a color unless I want to, or feel that what I have is good enough. When I want a color to be right on, I make a mixture of pigment(s) that represents a secondary color within the color I am matching. (Or I may mix a pigment of the same shade as my toner.) This is done simply by adding pigment to ms and xylene. The xylene helps this mixture to flash quickly or quicker than it would with ms alone. This mixture wipes on easy and is easily removed, but the beauty of it is it leaves behind just enough colorant, or as much as I want, without adding film thickness. I do this in combination with using a toner. This allows me to control the color and shade in areas that need it. I sometimes tack with a rag (lightly) saturated in the color. It depends on what I'm trying to achieve, but I rely on this method when a color match is imperative. You might want to consider trying this in combination to what you are doing now, otherwise, from what I have read, what you are doing may work on its own. Thin your toner as you see fit or are comfortable with.

From contributor J:
If you're not confused just yet, I wanted to jump on the pile too! All these guys are correct in what steps to take. You have to find your own comfort zone. Here's the deal: For the n.c. lacquers that bite into each other, I will mix my toner with only lacquer thinner and dyes/pigments/both and tone on (not too heavy). I've always liked this way because if you mess up in a corner, you can just Scotch Brite to blend. With post cat finishes, you need to mix up colors with the topcoat (I don't know why, since glazes don't rely on any binder), but this is good and bad. Good that with the proper amount of topcoat and/or reducer and especially colorant, you can tone like you're making one nice even pass. The bad... There's a whole bunch to adjust for and think about. One of the bad parts about using topcoat to tone is if you're blending certain areas in, you will be getting overspray on the already sanded areas that don't need adjusting, but with proper planning for your conditions (booth wind, drafts, size of cabinets, etc.), you can work around these deals. The way I like to deal with poplar is give the green areas a shot of red to neutralize them, after I wash coat with hide glue and light sand and stain with a color a little lighter than my sample (you can wash the dark looking stain off the green wood with p-t, then blend it in better, seal sand clean and tone with the same formula/color as my stain diluted as talked about above). You can always go with the spray-no-wipe NGR dyes that will not splotch up on you (if you do it right).

From contributor E:
I still don't think you got the answer that you're looking for. If you're looking for a formula, here's what I use.

28 oz of lacquer thinner
4-5 oz of precat lacquer
2-4 oz of stain (depending on the color)

Now I see you're using dyes, so maybe your 1/4oz of dye will work in place of the 2oz of oil base stain. The 4 oz of lacquer that you add is only a binder to hold the stain/dye in place when it dries. Spray it on in very light coats; don't pool it on the wood. The object is not to build too many coats of lacquer, so as to start getting cracks from too much build up. I usually spray about 3 coats to get the shading I want, and immediately after the last coat flashes, I spray my finish coats of lacquer. While spraying, make sure you are constantly shaking your gun to make sure the stain/dye is suspended in the mix or it may settle to the bottom and spurt out in globs of color. Make samples, lots of them, until you feel comfortable with what you're doing.

As for the 7:1 shellac wash, that seems a little thin. I use my precat for a 5% washcoat. Usually 1 coat is all it takes. To get that, you need to know your solids by volume (not weight). My stuff is 20% solids, so I use a 1:4 ratio. You're using Magnamax, which is 25% solids, so you would do a 1:5 ration for a 5% washcoat, i.e. 5 oz of lacquer to 25 oz of thinner. Spray it on wet, let dry completely and sand with 220 or 320 very lightly so as not to take the solids away or you will defeat your purpose.

From the original questioner:
Finally got what I was looking for, a starting point. Thanks to all of you - you made me the finisher I am today and all the info I gather on this forum helps me out like you can't believe.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
I do pieces pretty often that are made with different woods and they all have to look the same color when I'm done. It's not that hard to do, but takes a few coloring steps. The steps work well to get an even medium to dark color on a lot of different woods, including poplar.

Here are the basic steps:
* Dye the wood to establish the base color
* Stain over the dye to develop the grain and get 80% of the final color
* Spray a coat of sealer and sand smooth
* Spray toner to get the final color
* Topcoat

The dye starts the coloring process and establishes a base color for the rest of the finish. I usually like to get anywhere from 1/4 - 1/2 of the final color from the dye in a multi-step colored finish. Dye does a nice job of popping any figure in the wood and develops highlights that are visible even after the rest of the coloring steps. Sometimes I'll use a pretty brightly colored dye that compliments the stain color to take advantage of the highlights it produces (e.g., orange dye under a "cherry" color). Once the dye dries, I apply a wiping stain over it to add more color and accentuate the grain in the wood. Usually I spray a light wet coat of the stain and wipe away the excess. After the stain dries, seal it with a coat of sealer or finish, let it dry, sand it smooth, and remove the sanding dust. Next comes a coat of toner. To make a toner, I'll usually mix up 4 ounces finish to 28 ounces of thinner and add 1 1/2 ounces of dye concentrate. Sometimes I'll use the stain instead of dye (as long as it's compatible with the finish) or for some finishes, I'll use 1/4 ounce or less of pigment. Sometimes I'll use two coats of toner, but it's rare. Follow the toner coat(s) with a couple coats of clear.

To get the most even color from dye, spraying a light, even wet coat without any wiping works best for me. The brand of dye isn't that important as long as it's fade resistant (metallized). One of my suppliers has their own label and can mix any color I need or I may use a pre-mixed color from companies like ILVA, Behlen, Mohawk Ultra Penetrating, ML Campbell Microton, Sherwin Williams Dye Concentrates, Homestead Finishing (.com) Transtints, or Wood Finishing Supplies (.com) Color FX . To make life easier, I use whichever brand has the closest color pre-mixed to the color I want most of the time. By intermixing and adjusting how much you thin dye concentrates, you can get an infinite range of colors.

Some problems that come with spraying dye are over-saturation, flooding, bleeding, striping, and poor coloring in corners. Unlike wiping a dye, where the color reaches a limit, with spraying you can over-saturate the wood with color and it gets darker and darker. I usually like to spray the dye in one even wet coat, though some finishers prefer to mist on multiple coats to build the color. The problem I have with multiple coats is maintaining the same color intensity and consistency over numerous surfaces. Applying the dye too heavy, flooding the surface, causes blotching, bleeding, and/or color pooling. A light coat that wets the wood and flashes off quickly keeps the color even. I have to pay close attention when spraying dye to make sure it's heavy enough to wet the wood and overlap the passes enough to avoid spraying stripes. If it's not wet enough, it produces a hungry look where the grain and figure are muted. When you spray into corners and recesses, the turbulence from the air the spray gun uses keeps the dye from wetting the wood evenly. Keeping the air as low as possible and good spray technique will minimize the effect.

After the dye dries, I use a wiping stain (no washcoat). Some wiping stains work a lot better than others. Several good brands of stain include Chemcraft, Valspar, Triclad, ICA, ML Campbell, Behlen, etc. The various brands have different versions of the same color as well. Like dyes, by intermixing colors (stick with the same brand for compatibility) and varying the thinning ratios, you can get a huge range of colors. When you thin these stains, use the stain base instead of the solvent. The stain base has the right blend of solvent, binder, and additives to maintain the stain's working properties. Before you use a wiping stain, make sure to do a large sample to see how that color works. While one color will work well, another color from the same brand can look horrible. If the stain is made with both pigment and dye, it'll usually cause blotching on woods like poplar, maple, cherry, pine, alder, etc.

Here's an example of the dye and stain steps. In these pictures, the birch ply and poplar trim cabinet on the left was dyed a shade of grey and the one on the right was dyed and stained. This job had poplar, birch and maple in it and the final finish was ebony. The grey dye equalized the color on the different woods and gave me a base color to build on.

Dye evens out variations

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Stain over dye

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After the stain dries (an hour or less with a good stain), seal it in with a coat of sealer/finish. Then sand the sealer smooth and spray a toner over it. The toner adds the last of the color and helps to even everything out. The color variations in the wood don't stand out enough to cause any problems by this point. Spray a couple topcoats over the toner.

Here's another example with a reddish brown walnut color. The wall panel is maple and the trim around the arched door opening is poplar. The 3 step coloring process makes the poplar blend right in with the maple.

Maple with poplar trim

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Here's the same job, inside the library, showing the maple wall panels and trim pieces. The trim around the door and between the panels is poplar and the baseboard is pine.

Maple with poplar and pine trim

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The first thing I always do before I start a new finish is to work out the steps on scrap or cut-offs (the larger the better!). I also experiment with different colors at times to work out new finish samples for customers to choose from as well as just to see how they look. I keep all the good samples and use them over and over.

Here's a schedule to try (with the Campbell products you're using):

* Dilute microton "walnut" dye 1 part dye to 4 parts thinner (change the ratio to change the intensity).

* Spray a light, even wet coat of the dye on all the wood. Don't worry if the coverage isn't perfectly even, the stain will hide problems/imperfections.

* Spray and wipe Woodsong wiping stain. Change the intensity as needed by reducing with the clear stain base.

* Seal with a coat of sealer or finish. Sand smooth.

* Mix 1 - 2 ounces of the walnut microton dye in a quart of thinned finish (28 ounces thinner, 1-2 ounces dye, 4 ounces lacquer) to make your toner. Less dye means less color but is easier to spray without getting stripes.

* Don't sand the toner. Spray a coat of lacquer over it and sand smooth. Spray the final topcoat.

Do a sample or three, the larger the better, before starting on the cabinet. Work out the thinning ratios for the dye, toner, and stain to get the color you want.

From contributor B:
Paul, that was absolutely fantastic how you presented this facet of work in our profession. You are without a doubt one of the best technical advisors we've had on this forum. You try to help each and every one of the participants and knowledge seekers. You are a true asset to the finishing profession and to this forum. Hope you stay here for a while.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
Thanks very much Billy. That's great encouragement from a fellow finisher! Is my face red? ;)

From contributor R:
I'm with Paul on this one. I think doing the entire color with toners is a mistake. On areas which get a lot of wear, the color will rub off leaving ugly white poplar showing through. Dye stain first, sprayed on. I have done some large poplar jobs and I have had to tone out the dark streaks using a pigmented blond toner and then glaze to get the color I want to blend with the rest.

From the original questioner:
The formula I ended up using was:
5.6oz thinner
12oz lacquer
0.8oz concentrated dye
2 coats for correct color.

The lighting in this picture isn't the greatest. If I had the forethought, I would have turned off the light above it, but alas I didn't. I wasn't able to complete the drawer fronts, as I was getting the rest of the cabinets on the wall before the floor guys come. I will be able to get more pictures next time I go up there. Maybe I'll be able to take a picture of the curly maple tabletop that will be a yellow/red-orange color. Boy, is this thing going to stand out.

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Photo by Leo R. Graywacz Jr.